It’s hard to figure out what to review when I’m writing up a show – the individual components (acting, set design, et cetera), or the impact of the prduction on me. I tend to stick to the second, but my experience is greatly influenced by whether or not I’ve seen the show before. I like to have shows be surprising for me, and part of the surpise is how the story unfolds. So this review, of a musical I’ve never seen before (Merrily We Roll Along), is going to be just as much a review of what was put on paper as it was how the actors, director, musicians, and so forth came together to make it all happen. And I realize this review is a bit late – the show opened in November – but shows at the Menier Chocolate Factory tend to be at the top end of my budget, and I decided to hold off going until the reviews came in. Once they did, though, it was a scramble to get tickets at any price, and I’ll warn you in advance if you want to see it that your best chance is to just check the website a few times a day to see if returns come in, because it is now VERY sold out (though talking of a transfer).
So! There’s a musical on at the Menier, by a composer I frequently have found irritating because of the tuneless nature of his show tunes. However, as I’ve been getting older, I’ve been finding myself enjoying his stuff more, because of the complicated textures of his … this is embarrassing … lyrics. OKAY! I’VE ADMITTED IT! Yes, I got to musicals and listen to THE WORDS. This is why I think Cole Porter is the best musicals writer ever, because his lyrics are so intelligent (and the music so singable). And, well, in an age in which lyrics seem to be getting stupider by the decade, tuning into a Sondheim musical at least proves intellectually satisfying. So when I heard that Merrily We Roll Along was not just supposed to be a good production, but had a story that I could get into (it’s about writing musicals, not very original but still the kind of thing I like on stage), I done went and ponied up and hoped against hope that maybe this time I’d walk out the door whistling a tune.
Okay, that last sentence was pretty much a lie. What I wanted was a show that pulled me into the story and made my brain fizz when people were singing, and even if it wasn’t the buzz I get from Irving Berlin, I thought this show would deliver. And so it did: starting with a scene of seventies success and excess, in a Malibu mansion, where producer Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers) is having a big party to celebrate how awesome he is. He keeps feeling up a young starlet who’s there; before the evening is over, his wife and a mysterious fat broad from New York (Mary Flynn, Jenna Russell) have both told him off and walked out. What is this all about? Why are they so angry? Why was the New Yorker there at all? And there was a … songwriting partner?
From this point, the show starts rolling backwards, connected by a series of lovely announced date changes, telling the story of how Shepard got to where he was at the beginning of the play, how he made friends and lost them, how he had a family, how he had dreams, how he evolved from a man in love with music and the stars in the night sky to a man in love with fame, attention, and money. And because it’s told going backwards, because you know who his second wife at the start, you know there is a first: and when first wife (the lovely Clare Foster) is there congratulating Shepard and Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle) at the opening of Shepard’s first big success, your heart breaks that she won’t listen to Mary Flynn’s warning to keep an eye on her. In some ways, it’s wonderful to finally see when Shepard is friends with Charlie Kringas (Damian Humbley), in part because of the way it opens up opportunities for great duets and trios, but the hope and joy the characters show on stage can never be felt by the audience.
Let me be clear – there are a lot of really fun scenes and songs in this show – my favorites being the “composition” song (complete with the sound of typewriters, sung) and the Andy Warhol/Factory-esque dance party in black and white – but what really stuck was the feeling of infinite melancholy brought on by knowing where each scene, told going forward, would end up in the future. Thus a song like “Not a Day Goes By” hits you in the teeth on its reprise, because it’s not a song about how you can’t forget someone you hate … it’s about how your life is inevitably marked my someone you love. And then it changes. My God, what a show. I can see how I wouldn’t have enjoyed Sondheim so much in my twenties; shows like this, like Strindberg, really require a person to have had a lot more suffering and loss in their lives before they can really resonate. It was, really and truly, a great show.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 19th, 2013. It continues through March 9th and may have a West End transfer – God knows the talent was blasting off the stage like they were powered with rocket fuel. Unmissable in the Menier, I tell you.)